Love and Loss

updated 10/20/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/20/1997 01:00AM

With her instantly recognizable voice and unmistakable 4'7' frame, Dr. Ruth Westheimer is America's most famous dispenser of sexual advice. Starting on radio in 1980, branching out into TV and books—15 so far, the latest, Dr. Ruth Talks About Grandparents—she preaches a commonsense credo of responsibility and fulfillment. Through it all, as she rose from the obscurity of her New York City sex-therapy practice, Dr. Ruth enjoyed the quiet support of her husband, Fred, a telecommunications consultant whom she met on a skiing trip in New York's Catskill Mountains and married in 1961. Like her, he was a refugee from Nazi Germany.

Fred Westheimer, who was 5'5", helped raise Miriam, 40, Dr. Ruth's daughter from a previous marriage, and Joel, their 34-year-old son. On April 3, after 36 years of marriage, Fred Westheimer died at 70 of heart failure—and suddenly Dr. Ruth, then 68, was alone. In her office on Manhattan's Upper East Side, she talked with PEOPLE correspondent Cynthia Wang about widowhood, loneliness and the rituals of mourning that are helping her adjust to her loss. "I think," says Dr. Ruth, "that my contribution is to talk more so that other people can really learn something."

WHEN WE MET, I HAD BEEN MARRIED twice, and Fred had never been married. He was 35 years old, and his parents had given up on him ever getting married. I knew right away I would marry him; he didn't know it so fast.

Over the past few years, he had had three strokes, the last one on March 25. I came home and he said, "Ruth, help me. Another stroke. I have a headache." And those were the last words he spoke. He died in the hospital on April 3. I felt not only emptiness but very, very sad. Thank God I was in New York. I would have been devastated if I was traveling, because I would have said, "If only I had been home, what could I have done?" But because I was at home, I knew everything possible was done; from the ambulance to the hospital, he got the best care possible. That's important to me. He was buried on April 4, the day after he died, and that's according to Jewish custom.

In fact, one aspect of the Jewish tradition that's very helpful is that things are very much regulated. There was a prayer that the rabbi had taught the family to say the night before Fred died. Then there is a prayer once a person has died, and then there is sitting shivah, which means you are at home, sitting on a low chair for seven days of mourning. Then after those days are over, you walk around the block, saying a certain prayer, which really says this period of high mourning is over and you have to show your face to the community.

Having my daughter and her husband, my son and his wife and my two grandchildren around me was the most comforting feeling of all. The support of relatives and friends, the larger circle, was also important. I got hundreds of letters. They were comforting because you know they are people who feel my loss with me.

But there must be time for yourself. Whether it would be for going on a walk or closing the door and not answering the phone, it's important to keep that space for your own mourning—to keep the space and to think, there is nothing right now that I have to do. I can look at pictures or read letters.

In my case, I was already booked to do the things that I was going to do this summer, and that was very helpful. For me, to go out in July with a film crew to Israel and the former Soviet Union, to St. Petersburg, to Moscow, to Uzbekistan and then back to Israel was a very important step in my saying, "Okay. This is different. I have never been a widow. I have been divorced. I have been alone, because I was an orphan at the age of 10, but I have never been a widow. The loneliness is different because the loss of a spouse is final."

One thing I have say to people is for widows to realize that, except for their very close friends, there might be fewer invitations. Another thing: for a recent widow, it is very painful to only go out with couples. I think that people have to realize that for certain activities, they have to find some new people to do them with.

I do think a lot about him. I was, this past Sunday, at a 70th-birthday party of Fred's favorite cousin. Other cousins were there, and I did go. I did not say, "No, it's too painful to go because Fred isn't there," because I like Fred's cousins very much. And sitting there and talking, I thought Fred really would have enjoyed this party. There are many times that I say, "This is really something he would have enjoyed," or "This is something that he would not have liked." These thoughts keep the feeling of companionship from our long marriage alive.

I want my grandchildren to talk about him. I encourage it, not all day long, it's not their life, and the little one is too young. It's sad she is not going to know about him, but the 7-year-old is a very sensitive little boy, and whenever he says something about Fred, I respond immediately.

I mention Fred a lot. I mention him whenever something comes up. I don't do it deliberately, but it just happens. Nobody should fight a memory, even if it is painful, even if it is a memory about a fight. If you asked me, what would you have changed, I would say I probably should have cooked a few more meals—but not too many, because I'm not a good cook, so this way he didn't miss too much.

I think it's very important to remember. I don't keep anything like a shrine, but I do keep my office as you see it. I have not changed the pictures. For instance, the picture of Fred at Joel's graduation from Stanford has been sitting on my desk all the time. I have not gone out and said I am going to find more pictures of Fred to put here, and I have not taken away one picture. Once you've been married for so many years, you don't need something special in order to remember.

Now there are many people who are not as fortunate as me to be so active in life, so I say, after a period of mourning—don't shorten it, your inner voice will tell you when—find a new interest. I would say, maybe your husband never liked opera, but you really like opera, find somebody yourself and go to the opera. Maybe someone wants to start gardening or go to community college. Participate in adult education courses, do something new. If you just wallow in the grief and feel sorry for yourself, you will not form new friends, and I'm not talking about new romantic relationships, just people who will want to be with you.

Last year, before all of this happened, it was after his first stroke but before Fred got very sick, I had decided enough of coloring my hair. I said I'm 68—I've now turned 69. I'm such a proud grandmother. All I have to do is look at them and smile—so I'm going to let my hair go gray, and my hairdresser agreed. And I'm very happy with it, and Fred liked it too. Fred had beautiful gray hair, and he liked it.

But now I know that I have a sad task. I have to choose, with my children, a gravestone, and before the year is over, because that is what is done in the Jewish tradition. And in Israel, his name is being read in an Orthodox synagogue three times a day for a year. In the synagogue where he and I went, it's being read on Fridays and Saturdays. So I know, when the prayer for the departed is said, Fred's name is there. I know that I am going to be sad when I hear his name, but I am going even though I know there will be sadness.

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